http://autoweek.com/search/search_d...43&Search_Type=STD&Search_ID=1938636&record=1 (08:30 March 08, 2004) Sailing Large: Chrysler Launches A Flagship Under American Colors By KEVIN A. WILSON Photos by Andrew Yeadon Palm Springs, California, has more than its share of Rolls-Royces and Bentleys on the roads, more than its share of people who have accumulated wealth over a lifetime and landed here in retirement. A Mercedes-Benz S600 just means a few more folks on their way to the casino or an early dinner. No one blinks at any of this. Park a new 2005 Chrysler 300C at the curb on what looks like a sleepy stretch of Palm Desert Highway, though, and you can draw a crowd. And suddenly, you find the younger people, too. Here is a car America has been longing for, a truly large rear-drive domestic four-door sedan. And it is built for people who like their cars big. Ten feet from wheel center to wheel center, the new 300's distinctive style gives it an undeniable curbside presence. No Chrysler, not even the Town & Country extended minivan, has boasted this 120-inch wheelbase for more than 25 years. Don't get the idea that the car is only about wretched excess. It replaces the LHS, Concorde and 300M in the lineup, and with the base 190-hp 2.7-liter V6 the price starts at less than $24,000, in the heart of the sedan market. Even with the Hemi-equipped 300C, starting at less than $33,000, you'll work the option list to push the MSRP very high. If you want to stretch it near $40k, wait for fall when all-wheel-drive models arrive. Otherwise,you can start taking delivery in April. For all the expanse of its wheelbase, the 300 isn't even absurdly huge, just big enough that you don't feel dwarfed on highways full of SUVs. At 4999 mm (196.8 inches) bumper to bumper, it just squeezes inside the five-meter limit that defined the outgoing 300M, a length that has much to do with European sales ambitions. So, as the long wheelbase smooths its ride and leaves plenty of room for a spacious cabin, the short overhangs pay benefits in parallel parking and mountain twisties alike, we found. In a way, this car has been a decade in the offing, though its development time is measured in the modern 24-to-36-month fashion. In the pre-merger days at Chrysler, Tom Gale and Bob Lutz were in a constant search for a proper flagship for the marque. Thinking of a limited-production car that would do for Chrysler what Viper was doing for Dodge and Prowler (supposedly) for Plymouth, defining the brand image, beginning with the 300 concept of 1991 and right on through the Chronos of 1998, the old team kept coming up with ideas. They were great concepts, but only the last one, Chronos, stood a chance of seeing the showroom. That was just when the merger with Daimler came along, and the notion of a long, voluptuous V10 luxury sedan looked superfluous when the company was harnessed to Mercedes-Benz. But there was a flip side to that coin. Where the biggest obstacle to the establishment of a true Chrysler luxury flagship was the lack of proper, sophisticated drivetrain and suspension bits on the Chrysler shelf, the new partner came with an array of intriguing parts. After time consolidating the businesses, a period during which Lincoln with its LS range and Cadillac with its CTS both turned to their European partners for help in returning to the rear-drive business, Chrysler's opportunity finally came. By now there was a Hemi V8 in its own arsenal, and access to a Mercedes-Benz rear differential, suspension design and transmission. "It all came together nicely," the now-retired Gale told us during this year's Detroit auto show, when the car was revealed in production form. "The availability of the Mercedes pieces, the Hemi, the design work we'd done to develop the face for the brand." The 300 is Gale's last car, the last one completed before he handed over the design realm to englishman Trevor Creed, whose own stamp and European perspective are also evident in the details. The 300's face is heavily influenced by the Virgil Exner-commissioned Ghia design studies Chrysler did in the 1950s, which themselves influenced the original 300s and letter-series cars. Big egg-crate grille, the way the hood forms a visor over the dual headlights, which are modern units (HID optional, even), but rendered as circles. These were constant touchstones throughout the '90s as Gale's team produced Chrysler flagship concepts. Also evident (look at the shape of the rear-door glass and its relationship to the roofline) is Gale's involve- ment in the hot rod scene, including a long-hood/short-deck look that really puts an end to Gale's own cab-forward theme of the front-drive era. Inside are strong reflections of the work done on the Chronos design, though this car has an upright and boxy cabin where that one had a coupe-like greenhouse with a more raked windshield and sweeping lines. The black-on-white gauges are developments from those on the outgoing 300M, but with a font even more reminiscent of old Smiths or Jaeger gauges. The center console can be trimmed in metal-as was that in Chronos-and there is an option for tortoise-shell trim on the steering-wheel rim, door handles and shifter. Yet this isn't a limited-edition, ultra-luxury Chrysler as envisioned by Lutz and Gale. It is a mainstream high-volume sedan that, if fully equipped, reaches only as far up as the near-luxury market, barely overlapping into Mercedes' territory, but with a distinctive American character. If the swoopy lines of the concepts didn't make production, the new sedan arrives just in time to catch two emerging trends. The first are buyers tired of SUVs and trucks, and ready for a car again, if only someone would give them the interior space and robust "safe" feeling they've become accustomed to. The second is a patriotic zeal that has some former import buyers willing to give a Detroit brand-even a German-owned one-another chance. Just as the Crossfire owes some of its goodness to the outgoing Mercedes SLK/CLK platform, the 300 (and its Dodge sibling, Magnum) must give a nod in the direction of the recently replaced Mercedes E-Class. One of the transmissions (the five-speed automatic with Chrysler Autostick shifter in the Hemi-equipped or awd models) and the rear differential are Mercedes parts, while the five-link rear suspension mounted to a subframe and the short-arm/long-arm front suspension are similar in design and engineering. The suspension parts and subframe, though, differ from the Mercedes units: The Chrysler has a longer wheelbase, wider track and bigger wheels than did the E-Class, so the parts had to be retooled. Some are no longer formed of the aluminum alloy used by the Germans, but rendered in less-expensive iron or steel. The driver with Mercedes experience will really recognize only one part: the steering column and its pair of stalks to operate the cruise control and the turn signal/wipers. But he will also recognize Mercedes' "influence," from hefty metal grab handles to open the doors through the upright seating position (fully two inches higher than that in the outgoing fwd 300M, and with much better ingress/egress). Once you get the 300 out on the road, the blend of American and European elements in its nature is truly delightful. Remember when we used to wonder why the imports could make fun rear-drive sedans and the domestics couldn't? Well, that was the previous century. Today, the two meld wonderfully. The Hemi truly is Detroit iron, with a cast-iron block and aluminum heads, producing 340 hp and a beefy 390 lb-ft at 4000 rpm. You want high-tech? Besides the dual-spark-plug hemispherical combustion chamber and all the electronic gizmometry you could wish for, the 300 goes a step further and offers "multi-displacement." That means at low loads and constant speeds, four of the eight cylinders "shut down" and the engine runs on the remaining four. This is managed electronically in such a way that the pushrod-operated valves trap an exhaust charge in each cylinder. It is blown out instantly, and the car returns to normal operation as soon as the driver demands power. We tried to catch any trace of it in action on the road over several hundred miles and never did-after awhile, we forgot all about it. Over challenging mountain roads and with an aggressive driver, the in-dash trip computer told us we were getting 17 mpg in the 4046-pound Hemi C, while gently cruising the interstate returned a reading in the low-30-mpg range. The official EPA ratings are 17/25 city/highway for rear-drive and 17/23 for all-wheel drive. Those numbers aren't far off the 19/27-mpg city/ highway numbers for the mid-range 3.5-liter V6 model or even the 21/28-mpg rating for the base 2.7-liter V6. Credit not only the multi-displacement system, but also the five-speed Mercedes transmission, where the V6s with rear-drive use Chrysler's own four-speed design (a rear-drive adaptation of the transmission used in the 300M). It works here as smoothly and unobtrusively as ever it did in the Mercedes products, and the Chrysler Autostick can still be shifted quickly when you need to pick your own gears. Those trading a Chrysler product will be astonished, too, by the quiet of the cabin. Development included time in the aero-acoustic wind tunnel that opened at the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan, back in 2002, and it really did the job. It's no trouble hearing the six-disc in-dash stereo system (if you get the optional navigation system, its single DVD is also integrated) or the optional Sirius satellite radio. Noise from headwinds and normal travel is comparable to Lexus levels, though crosswinds on the bluff sides are audible, as is a pleasing growl when you dip your toe into the Hemi's electronic throttle control. While the Hemi has plenty of thrust, it doesn't come on with a bang at low rpm like an old Hemi, nor does it have that big gulping intake sound to it. It does deliver its power in a recognizably Detroit way, even while the car's handling and over-the-road prowess stands up against the more refined import brands. The mass of the iron-block Hemi has its effect (about 300 pounds heavier than the V6s; the 2.7-liter V6 model comes in at 3721 pounds, the 3.5-liter at 3767 pounds) on twisty roads, where the V8 doesn't turn in as sharply as its lesser siblings. Which brings us to the steering. Unlike Mercedes, Chrysler uses a constant-rate steering assist. We liked this in the mountain driving, where the predictability of the steering feels better in situations such as under braking into a hairpin turn, where a Mercedes or BMW or Audi can sometimes go light and over-responsive on you. The steering has a robust, weighty feel to it, even more so in the nose-heavy Hemi, which might cast Hemi Magnum as the "man's car" of the lineup by middle America. The V6s don't have this sense, and share the 300C's good road feel. Those mountain roads also showed off the efficient, fade-free performance of the big, Bosch-built disc brakes front and rear. Four-wheel traction control and ABS is standard, as is stability control (the ESP system from Mercedes) and brake assist. We couldn't make the car misbehave, and even turning off the ESP to play some throttle-steer games in the tight stuff never saw it do anything alarming. The base tire on the 300C is an 18-inch Continental all-season touring tire with a 60-profile-not an extreme high-performance design, but one that gives a good ride and stays relatively quiet until you push it. A self-sealing "Conti-seal" design is optional. The three V6 models (300, 300 Touring and 300 Limited) use 17-inch wheels and a stock Goodyear tire, again with self-sealing Contis optional. Enthusiast drivers may want more aggressive rubber and we could live without the chrome on the 300C wheels, too-a polished wheel is promised for the all-wheel-drive version. While the car's stance looks good from the factory, expect to see plenty of 300s sporting 20-inch dubs in no time. We don't know that we'd be in a hurry to mess with the ride quality, though. We did manage to induce a nasty freeway hop on a stretch of I-10, bad enough that we got out to take a look and see if we hadn't thrown off a wheel weight or something to create such vibration. It was just the combination of the freeway surface and our rapid pace setting up a resonance. This is a notorious problem on some Southern California freeways, and shouldn't be held against the car's exceptional ride quality in all other circumstances. Those stepping out of trucks will find the 300 can tow up to 2000 pounds in its stock configuration, with a 3800-pound-capacity option in Hemi models equipped with the hitch offered through the Mopar catalog. That short-deck trunk looks small from outside, but will hold up to 15.6 cubic feet, and the rear seat is a 60/40 split bench, so larger loads fit readily enough. The 300 can seat five, but those accustomed to front-drive cars will notice the large rear-drive tunnel that holds both the driveshaft and exhaust system. That driveshaft, by the way, is a telescoping/collapsing unit, an innovation in the industry. The rest of the 300 reflects the parent company's longstanding research into crash safety, including precisely engineered collapsing structures front and rear. At the rear, where the car meets 2006 standards for a 50-mph impact, another innovation is the way the well for the compact spare tire is integrated into the cargo-area floor, at an angle that causes it to rotate into an upright position in a severe crash. This allows the frame structure to collapse as designed; whereas the spare wheel/tire itself would be too stiff, and transmit crash loads into the rear passenger seat if not mounted at the angle. For all its refinement, there remains a pleasant sense of Detroit iron about the 300 in its anvil-like rigidity. Those who remember rear-drive, V8-powered American sedans fondly will find little to argue with in the revival of the form in the 300C-there is space, there is a sense of substance and presence and plenty of performance. Chrysler claims a 6.3-second 0-to-60-mph time, which is conservative: Based on hand-held stopwatch times and assuming relative accuracy on the speedometer, we suspect it will easily run it in 5.8 or 5.9 seconds when we get it to the test track. Even with the 250-hp 3.5-liter, this car is no slouch. We're eager to take this flagship on some long voyages. I sat in a 300C w/Hemi at the auto show, and man these cars are hot. Chrysler finally has it right with this one.